Some agents felt very attached to a certain time frame. Often, but not always, it was the time associated with breaking past that unofficial “newborn” phase, of the moments when they truly became themselves.
It was, in its way, very human.
Others simply became invested in hobbies to the point where they became a defining part of that agent’s personality, and they would quietly gripe as their treasured pastime fell out of favour, and would crow in victory once they once again cycled back into the public zeitgeist.
Ryan had never found himself experiencing nostalgia for any particular slice of time.
The possibilities of tomorrow, of what could come, of what could be better had always seemed to be far more intriguing than mourning the loss of vaudeville or forgotten dance steps.
His wishes for the past were far more personal. Of missing the small, perfect moments with his family, of seeking advice from a Reynolds who could respond.
But even those melancholy wishes had somewhat muted themselves since a short, odd, curious young woman had fallen into his life.
And without even knowing it, her presence had pushed the blinkers from his eyes, made him realise what he had, what he wanted, and what he needed to change.
Already, Jones had gently coaxed him into attending a movie night – he’d spent the entire time paying half attention to the animated film, admiring the comradery of Jones’ recruits, and having Merlin gently pushing popcorn at him.
He had hope for the future, which almost seemed at odds with what he was doing now.
In his HUD, there was the feed from a pigeon drone, one in automatic mode, simply showing him the view of a yard.
A small backyard, where his granddaughter’s birthday was going on.
Music played, balloons fluttered, and at a plastic table, Arisa and three of her friends sat tinkering with what had surely been the “main” present from her parents – a new drone.
Alexander had made his choice, had chosen to step away, and that was something he would respect. Until the end of the world came, or some emergency when it was clear that Agency resources would remedy a dire situation where human ability might struggle, he wouldn’t darken his son’s door.
But he wished he could meet his granddaughter.
The drone took flight, and a gust of wind pushed it into the tree.
After a moment of its motors whirring, trying to free itself, Arisa swore loudly, then ran to the tree and started to shake it.
One of her friends declared they’d go hunt for a ladder, and the other two cheered on Arisa as she fruitlessly tried to shake the tree.
One small requirement dismissed the branch that was pinning the drone in place, another restarted its motor just before it fell into Arisa’s head.
He allowed it to hover for a moment, then gently guided it to the ground, hopefully looking like some kind of automatic, damage avoidance programming.
Arisa cheered, grabbed up the drone, and ran with it back to the table.
With a smile, he ended the drone program, and brought his focus back to the world outside his HUD.
Death stood before him.
Immediately, he bowed his head, wondering how he could have missed her arrival, how he could have-
‘It’s not difficult, Angel, I wasn’t here a moment ago, now I am here. You missed nothing.’
‘My Lady,’ he said, pouring all the respect into his voice that he was capable of. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Another part of herself has chosen to show itself.’
He was on his feet before he realised, grabbing his jacket from his desk where he’d tossed it before attending the birthday party.
As he rounded his desk to draw level with, she took his arm, and he immediately fell into step with her, measuring his pace as one did when escorting a lady.
As they walked from his office – passing through the door as if it wasn’t there, colour and sound slipped from the world, telling him that they were walking as she walked, through the world, but not part of it.
It gave him a strangely intimate look at some of his recruits as they continued – people frozen in mid-conversation, frozen, candid moments that would never occur when he was around.
Turning a corner, they stepped up, walking on air as easily as if there were stairs beneath their feet.
‘Ask, Angel,’ she said.
‘The first two,’ he said, faltering for words. ‘What do you want me to see this time, my Lady?’
One more step, and they were in the lab that held Stef as she slept. Above her heart was a string of pulsing yellow light – its colour all the more vibrant in this world of black and white.
It flickered like a flame, and with each tiny movement, he felt as though he could-
He leaned closer – there were images within the light – frozen frames that would jutter to life, reverse and fast-forward.
Rain on a window and twisted metal. Bloody hands and-
Death laid a hand on his chest and pushed him gently back. ‘I know what this is. I was there for this. And it’s a moment that should remain hers.’
Death touched the flame and it blossomed, shooting as high as the ceiling, before becoming a ball of pulsing light in her cupped hands.
Images flickered in the pulses, but this time, as they froze, they formed a petal, the ball slowly becoming a bright flower in her hands.
With a smile – one he couldn’t stop himself from thinking was beautiful – Death tucked the flower behind Stef’s ear.
‘Her medical records,’ he said at last. ‘She was injured in a road incident. I suspect that’s what this is. But there is always more to an event than what can be recorded by some simple type.’
Death gave a nod of approval. ‘I knew you would understand, Angel.’
Twelve. She’d been twelve.
Tears formed the eyes of her younger reflection.
She’d been at a recital. And then- Again, the block came, the want to stop herself from-
She reached out with both hands and held onto the hand that her reflection had pushed through the mirror.
As a hundred echoes, her own voice came back at her, some lyrical, some distorted. Screams. Entreaties. Two words, begging over and over for the truth as the light of the world went away.
I can’t open my eyes.
I can’t feel my legs.
I feel so cold. But…there’s something warm on my lap. A blanket. A wet blanket, that’s what it’s gotta be.
What just happened?
Come on, eyes, open.
I can’t feel…oh my god, what’s wrong with me? I can’t-
There was a murmur at the back of my mind: car accident. There’d been- We were in a car accident.
It hurt to breathe, and there was thick spit in my mouth. And it didn’t taste like spit. It tasted like sucking on a nail. The murmur in the back of my brain came again, and I knew it was blood.
There was blood in my mouth. It’s okay though, I probably just knocked a tooth loose. That happened when I fell off Buttercup once.
I couldn’t move. I could feel the belt tight across my chest, holding me tight to the seat. The seat that felt less together than it should.
There was something scratchy in my shoulder, like maybe one of the springs had pushed through the leather. That’s okay though, I can get a band-aid for that.
Everything’s okay, right?
There was more blood in my mouth, and I just let it trickle out, I couldn’t move my head, my neck hurt too much to move. Everything hurt. That’s good though, means I can probably get out of the rest of the Swan Lake performances. I don’t think beauty-though-pain counts when you’re bruised all over and have a band-aid on your shoulder.
The wet blanket on my lap moved, that’s good, my arms are kind of cold too – maybe I shouldn’t play in the rain in just a costume, or at least do it in a costume with better sleeves.
The blanket…trickled. It stopped just covering my lap, and ran down my legs.
I don’t think blankets are made of liquid. Maybe space blankets, but I’m not in space. Well, it’s raining, there might be a hole in the roof where there’s water leaking in.
Mother’s probably crying about the damage to the car, and she’ll get me out in a minute. She’ll get me out in a minute, and for once, she’ll let me play in all the puddles I want, after I get a band-aid, of course.
My leg twitched. That’s such a weird feeling, it’s like a muscle sneeze, just something that happens on its own. It twitched, and scrapped against something hard and sharp.
That’s ok, that’s just another band-aid.
Everything’s… okay, right?
‘Mummy?’ I whispered again. I don’t like calling her that, but even part of me wants to be Stephanie when I’m cold and need a band-aid.
The car can get fixed, it doesn’t matter to a car if it takes it a little longer. I need a band-aid now, cause once the band-aid goes on, the scratch starts to heal.
Everything started to get a little woozy, like it does when you’re really tired and are trying to stay up. Just to finish one more chapter of a really good book. Cold days can make you tired, and it’s only a couple of scratches, she can finish calling for the repair guy, and when I wake up, I can…
Someone squeezed my hand, and I grabbed it. It was warm, it was the only warm thing. Everything else was just cold, cold and tired. Even the blood and spit from the broken tooth leaking from my mouth didn’t feel that warm anymore, and…
Oh, come on Mother, you can at least get my jacket from my stupid princess-pink backpack while you call the repair guy.
Don’t leave me here, getting cold…
This is why rain is better observed from a window seat, with a blanket, if you’re out in it too long, you just get cold. That’s like…
The hand squeezed mine again, like they were trying to wake me from the nap I wanted to take. I’m too old for naps, but I don’t think anyone will tattle on me.
The hand left mine for a moment, and I had the strangest feeling, like I was being hugged, like I was being held, like…like what books say it’s like to sit on your mother’s lap.
It wasn’t my mother though, her lap is bony, and she doesn’t let anyone sit there. The hand squeezed mine again, and I felt another warm hand on my face. It brushed aside some of the rain on my cheek, then lifted my chin. It hurt, a lot, but she brought my face up, so that if my eyes were open, I would have been looking straight ahead.
‘Open your eyes, Stef.’
I didn’t want to, I just wanted to fall asleep on the strange lady’s lap. It was so safe there, and I was so tired. Her hand stayed on my chin, but the hand that was squeezing mine dropped away, then wrapped around my chest, and for a moment, everything stopped being so cold.
‘Open your eyes.’
I did, and for a moment, I wondered if the rain had stopped in time for the sunset – even though it was too early for it – cause everything was red.
I blinked a few times, trying to clear the red from my eyes. I wished I could lift my hand to clear it away, but I couldn’t, one hand hurt too much to move, and I couldn’t even feel the other.
A cloth swept across my eyes, and most of the red cleared. The hand kept my head pointed straight ahead, straight at the gap between the seats, straight at the men outside the car. Men in uniform. Ambulance guys.
One looked at the car, and past me, then swung his head back to look directly at me. He seemed weirded out, or surprised or something.
I blinked as more rain, no, not rain, blood, dripped past my eyes. He saw me blink, and he began to shout. Another man in uniform ran towards the car, toward the passenger seat that always held Mother’s purse’s seat and began to pull at the door.
I looked to Mother’s seat, but all I could see was a yellow blanket, covering a shape. A shape that The windshield was broken, and another yellow blanket covered part of a shape on the hood.
And I knew what that meant, but I- It was like something I’d read a long time ago. Like Cold. I’m so cold.
I think the men are still shouting, but I can’t hear them. I can’t hear anything.
The hand left my chin, and began to squeeze my hand again. It was the only thing I could feel, everything else was just too cold, or felt like it wasn’t even there. Like I wasn’t even there.
The hand squeezing mine, that was real, that was there, and that’s all I felt as my eyes closed again and I went for my nap.
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